Budget drops, but taxes still go up

UNION COUNTY — While the freeholders managed to cut their nearly half-billion dollar 2013 budget by $4.2 million, not every town saw a decrease in taxes. In fact, only two saw any decrease at all.

Last week the Union County Freeholder Board approved the 2013 $493.7 million spending plan, with the amount to be raised by taxes set at $317.5 million. This reflected a $15,046,747 increase over last year. Since 2010, county taxes have increased every year by at least $11 million.

Although the county portion of the tax bill is only one part of a three-part bill that includes municipal and school taxes, towns and taxpayers continue to express frustration over the annual increase they see each year.

But from what Freeholder Vice-Chairman Christopher Hudak said prior to the budget being approved April 28, they cut everything they could. He did not, however, bring up if the freeholders discussed slashing projects like the ice rink planned for Oak Ridge Park in Clark that will cost between $15 an $25 million, or the escalating costs of the new Galloping Hills golf facility in Union.

Instead, he described a grueling budget process that came down to going line-by-line in order too find every cut that could be made.
“Tonight concludes an extensive review of the 2013 budget over the past few months,” the freeholder noted, adding that the Fiscal Committee held departmental hearings in March and early April, which were open to the public.

“As the county manager noted in his executive budget in February, we have closed an approximate $28 million budget gap caused largely by a number of mandated expenses,” said the vice-chairman, adding that a line-by-line review was completed with a goal of cutting the bottom line, avoiding layoffs and service cutbacks.

Although it is true the county did not see the massive layoffs they did last year when approximately 260 employees were cut, the $4.2 million additional cuts made recently did nothing to avoid the increases towns will see in 2013.

In early February County Manager Al Faella explained in his executive budget narrative that the county had taken steps to create new revenue streams and “implement proactive measures controlling costs for future budgets.”

However, he placed the bulk of blame for the county’s fiscal increases on the reduction of state and federal reimbursements, as well as increases in mandated costs; not projects and studies the county undertook that are costing taxpayers millions.

Faella also failed to mention that it will take $17 million to keep Runnells Hospital afloat for another year until a decision is made to either sell or further privatize the Berkeley Heights facility that has operated in the red for years.

And while the county may intend to spend less in the coming year, where that money comes from has not changed. Municipalities still are feeling a pinch in their pocket — some more than others — when it comes to the taxes they hand over to the county.

Although the county set the average increase for taxpayers at $95, or a 4.97 percent increase over last year, that does not accurately represent individual towns.

Once again, the hardest hit town was Summit for at least the fourth consecutive year. For 2013, homeowners in this municipality will see the county portion of their tax bill go up $324 on average. Overall, taxes for this town went up $2,6123,210 over last year, and has increased by more than $5.6 million since 2011. This represents the highest jump countywide.

Last year, when Summit saw an 11 percent increase in their county property tax bills, Councilman Patrick Hurley said his residents had roughly double the tax rate of many other county municipalities while receiving the least number of services in return.

While this councilman blamed the increases on there being no Summit representation on the freeholder board, Freeholder Dan Sullivan strongly disagreed.

Sullivan said the biggest factor impacting taxes is the states equalization formula, which sets the tax rates based on ratables and property values.

“It isn’t that we decided to tax Summit at a different rate. If county government raises taxes by two percent, that two percent doesn’t fall equally across the county,” Sullivan said last year in an interview with LocalSource, adding that taxes may go up five percent in Summit but two percent in another municipality.

County Finance Director Bibi Taylor confirmed that in an interview last week, explaining towns like Summit have ratable’s that continue to escalate — not decreasing like many other towns — which keeps their tax rate higher.

This is no consolation for Summit or Berkeley Heights as the county continues to spend millions on ice rinks and state of the art golf clubs at their expense.

Berkeley Heights taxpayers also saw an increase in county taxes of $1.1 million, or $201 more for the average homeowner in 2013. This municipality has talked of succeeding from the county but so far no steps have been taken in this direction. In fact, it may not even be possible, according to county officials who maintain state law does not permit this move.

Two towns, Rahway and Roselle, actually saw a decrease of $10 in county taxes this year. For Rahway, that meant $79,429.46 less that will be handed over to the county and for Roselle, $81,957 less than last year. Hillside taxpayers also did not see a major impact with a $16 increase on average.

Roselle Park saw the least increase at $3 for the average homeowner. But other towns saw no such relief.
Westfield saw the second highest increase at $2,086,121, or $216 for the average property owner.